Rocky Top awaits with revenge in its orange heart.
Virginia’s basketball team doesn’t play again until Monday when the Cavaliers venture to Knoxville to face a 7-4 Tennessee team that has been as unpredictable as the Cavaliers. Vols coach Cuonzo Martin threatened to shake up his starting lineup after a 66-58 loss to N.C. State but ended up sticking with his regulars and Tennessee bounced back with a win over Morehead State.
Still, the Vols haven’t performed in the manner expected by fans or even media that voted them third in the SEC preseason poll.
No doubt Tennessee believes it can gain all the momentum it needs for conference play when ACC member Virginia comes to town. The Cavaliers humbled the Vols in Charlottesville last year with a 46-38 win that left Martin scratching his head over his team’s offensive ineptitude.
In that game, Tennessee managed to shoot only 28.8 percent from the floor and a mere 15.8 percent from beyond the 3-point line, although the Vols did outscore UVa 22-21 in the second half.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett would prefer the same-paced game in Knoxville and the team that wins the tempo battle early may walk away with the ‘W,’ although we’re not so sure that the Cavaliers would be outmatched in a faster-paced game with their athleticism.
Bennett and his coaching staff still aren’t quite sure what they’ve got. They know they have talent. They know they have depth. It’s the blending of those, discovering the right chemistry that has been the challenge we expected it to be.
How do you keep nine, 10, even 11 guys happy unless there’s some sort of automatic amount of minutes mapped out like on some NBA teams? Bennett said a few nights ago that he could start as many as 10 guys. In fact, in the most recent win over Norfolk State, he had planned on shortening his rotation but still ended up playing 10 guys.
I remember asking Bennett about how he would handle perhaps the deepest bench in Wahoo basketball history. It was on Oct. 9, and it was obvious he had put a lot of thought into the issue well before it was asked about.
I was impressed by his answer, noting that he believed playing so many players would work because of the character of kids that he brought to the UVa program, and because of their unselfishness and patience.
Depth can be a blessing or a curse. It is a blessing when players understand that the coach is trying to be fair to everyone and that over the long haul, the depth can be a factor in winning big games at the end of the regular season or in postseason where there are several games over a short period of time. Opposing benches may be worn down because of the lack of depth and won’t be as fresh.
The curse comes when jealousies arise over playing time or the lack of it. We’ve already seen some guys exit the program in previous years, some due to a lack of playing time or the question of whether their time would diminish in future years.
So far, Bennett and his staff have handled this delicate issue with class and fairness.
Bennett’s thoughts on Oct. 9?
“I think guys can play harder for shorter stints and hopefully we don’t have to wear guys down,” Bennett said.
Remember Joe Harris at the end of last season?
“As the season progresses, you are playing guys you feel most comfortable with,” Bennett continued. “Whether that is 10, great, or if’s 11, eight, nine, that is to be determined. That chemistry piece though … there will be a war for playing time, but will they put the team above themselves? If they’re willing to be patient and really try to embrace doing something as a group, that will be the key.
“Will there be frustration from guys not playing enough? Of course,” Bennett said. “But I think we have a group that wants to be good collectively, which is how we have to do it. We do not have enough individual talents just to line them up and say we are going to dominate people. We have to do it collectively and with different guys at different times.”
We’ve seen all of that over the past month or so with Bennett experimenting with various combinations on the floor, his “Jumbo” lineup as opposed to his four-guard ones. He believed all along that his team would handle all of this potentially explosive stuff because of character.
“That is why we try hard to recruit character guys and ones that are genuinely excited about trying to make the program better, and if the are character guys, they will embrace the team and fight for individual goals, but not above being successful collectively,” Bennett said.
So far, we’ve seen examples of that, too.
Senior big man Akil Mitchell did not start for the first time in nearly two years. Another inside player who has contributed heavily this season, Anthony Gill, was asked to sit out the first half.
If either were belly-aching about it, they must have done it privately. Mitchell said he totally understood where Bennett was coming from, that he hadn’t been himself as a player lately and knew how the coach was trying to motivate him.
Gill said he had no problem doing what Bennett had asked and that he would “run through a wall” for his coach if that was required.
“Whether I’m in the game or on the bench, I’m the same,” Gill said. “I’ve got my brothers' backs at all times.”
Justin Anderson, London Perrantes, they’ve both started or come off the bench. Whatever it takes, is what these guys said they are willing to do in order to win.
Character. You can’t force it, but you can recruit it.
Bennett is counting on character to help fuse this talent, this depth into the haughty preseason expectations that predicted a fourth-place finish in the basketball-rich ACC.
Knoxville would be a good place to start before ACC warfare begins.
Rocky Top awaits.